Despite Struggles, Indians Bullpen Is Flexible In October

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The Achilles heel. Kryptonite. Whatever you want to call it, the bullpen has been the glaring weakness of this Indians team all year long.

After leading the MLB in ERA at an impressive 2.89 mark in 2017, Indians relievers decided to see what life was like at the bottom of the rankings this year. The 2018 edition of the relief unit posted the sixth worst ERA (4.60) and the fourth-worst fWAR (0.4) in the league. In related news, the Tribe gave up a hefty amount of walk-off’s this year – 13, to be exact.

As a fan of this team, these are not the words you want to be heard going into October, where high-pressure situations are aplenty and bullpen usage is at a peak. But, October also signifies the shifting around of pitching staffs, where starters come out of the bullpen and late-inning relievers are asked to take on multiple innings of work. With a bevy of reliable starting pitchers and a few stud relievers to anchor the late innings, this shift in strategy could be much needed for the Indians to establish some consistency in the bullpen.

There won’t be too many surprises with the starting rotation in the ALDS, save for a potential Game 4. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger can safely be penciled into starting spots in the first three games after posting a trio of impressive individual seasons. For Game 4, Francona will turn to either Trevor Bauer or Shane Bieber, depending if either of them are used in the first three games. Most importantly, this shows Francona’s willingness to bring a talented starter out of a bullpen that lacks depth.

While he might not even start a game this postseason, Bieber could sneakily be one of the more important arms on the staff in the coming weeks. With five starting pitchers on the roster – one more than the normal four-man rotation that teams use in the playoffs – Francona can turn to the 23-year-old for middle-inning relief without sacrificing a day of rest for another starter.

Bieber’s track record could play well into this role too. Aside from putting together one of the best rookie starting pitching seasons of the year, Bieber was exceptionally good at facing lineups the first time through the order.

Shane Bieber in 2018 (via Fangraphs)

With a 2.70 ERA and an 11.42 K/9 in his first time through a batting order, Bieber projects as a serviceable middle relief piece for Francona, should one of the starters have to be pulled before the sixth inning or so. He could effectively bridge the gap between the starter and the late-inning arms without getting too far out of his comfort zone (a.k.a. the second time through the order). Additionally, with one of the best walk rates in the league (1.72 BB/9), he can effectively be used in extra-inning scenarios. The rookie could end up being a Swiss army knife for Francona’s staff.

Of course, Bieber isn’t the only piece to the puzzle. Think of him as a potential bridge between the starters and the relievers. What lies on the far side of this Bieber Bridge is much more crucial to the Indians success: the bullpen.

Here are the relievers who will fill out the ALDS roster:

The relievers will be headed by the core four of Miller, Hand, Allen, and Perez. When performing at its peak, this back-end of the bullpen is World Series-caliber. However, due to injuries to Miller and a rough regular season for Allen, this group has not collectively reached its peak all year. In a month when small sample sizes are king, this group simply needs to catch fire at the right time.

“I don’t think we ever really put it all together this year. The idea is to put it together at the right time, and I think we’re capable of it,” Miller told Jordan Bastian of “It’s just one of those things that, on my own shoulders, I’m looking forward to it. I think I’m ready for it, and I think if I pitch like I’m capable of and like I’ve done lately, I can be an important part of this.”

Miller and Allen already know what its like to be a part of a fiery playoff bullpen in Cleveland. Miller earned 2016 ALCS MVP honors when he dismantled just about every Toronto Blue Jay that crossed his path. Meanwhile, Allen has still allowed just one postseason run in 19.1 innings to go along with 7 saves and 33 strikeouts.

Hand (2.28 ERA) and Perez (1.39) have been lights out since joining the Indians this season, thrusting themselves to the forefront of the team’s bullpen scheme. The two left-handers are more than just specialists. Right-handed hitters have gone just 5-for-48 (.104 BA) against Perez and 36-for-159 (.226) against Hand.

It goes as no secret that the Indians should keep the ball in the hands of these four guys as much as possible. As far as the bullpen goes, Cimber could be good for the occasional matchup and Otero can be a sufficient emergency arm, but there’s no need to overthink it: keep the studs on the mound.

The surplus of reliable starters coupled with a group of scary late-inning arms makes this Indians pitching staff October ready. Just stay away from drones, please.